Her Own Worth: Negotiations of Subjectivity in the Life Narrative of a Female Labourer
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Her Own Worth: Negotiations of Subjectivity in the Life Narrative of a Female Labourer

By Eerika Koskinen-Koivisto
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Book Description

In this study, I examine the life narrative of a female factory labourer, Elsa Koskinen (née Kiikkala, born in 1927). I analyze her account of her experiences related to work, class and gender because I seek to gain a better understanding of how changes in these aspects of life influenced the ways in which she saw her own worth at the time of the interviews and how she constructed her subjectivity. Elsa’s life touches upon many of the core aspects of 20th-century social change: changes in women’s roles, the entrance of middle- class women into working life, women’s increasing participation in the public sphere, feminist movements, upward social mobility, the expansion of the middle class, the growth of welfare and the appearance of new technologies. What kind of trajectory did Elsa take in her life? What are the key narratives of her life? How does her narrative negotiate the shifting cultural ideals of the 20th century?A life story, a retrospective evaluation of a life lived, is one means of constructing continuity and dealing with the changes that have affected one’s life, identity and subjectivity. In narrating one’s life, the narrator produces many different versions of her/him self in relation to other people and to the world. These dialogic selves and their relations to others may manifest internal contradictions. Contradictions may also occur in relation to other narratives and normative discourses. Both of these levels, subjective meaning making and the negotiation of social ideals and collective norms, are embedded in life narratives.

My interest in this study is in the ways in which gender and class intersect with paid labour in the life of an ordinary female factory worker. I approach gender, class and work from both an experiential and a relational perspective, considering the power of social relationships and subject formations that shape individual life at the micro-level. In her narratives Elsa discusses ambivalence related to gendered ideals, social class, and especially the phenomenon of social climbing as well as technological advance.

I approach Elsa’s life and narratives ethnographically. The research material was acquired in a long-standing interview process and the analysis is based on reflexivity of the dialogic knowledge production and contextualization of Elsa’s experiences. In other words I analyze Elsa’s narratives in their situational but also socio-cultural and historical contexts. Specific episodes in one’s life and other significant events constitute smaller narrative entities, which I call micro-narratives. The analysis of micro-narratives, key dialogues and cultural ideals embedded in the interview dialogues offers perspectives on experiences of social change and the narrator’s sense of self.

This book is part of the Studia Fennica Ethnologica series.

Table of Contents
  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction: Understanding Her Life
    • Research Aims and Questions
    • Studying the Life of an “Ordinary” Individual
    • Elsa’s Life Context
      • The Life of Elsa Koskinen
      • Inha Ironworks – the Factory Village
      • Factory Workers’ Families
    • Concepts and Theoretical Framework
      • Narrated Life and Personal Experiences
      • The Life Narrative as a Negotiation of Subjectivity
      • Intersections of Gender, Class and Work
    • Outline of this Book
  • 2. The Dialogic Research Process and Analysis
    • The Interviews and Intimacy
      • Interviews with Elsa
      • Studying a Relative – Subjective Knowledge and Validity
      • Blind Spots and Reflexivity
      • The Challenges of Intergenerational Dialogue
    • Research Ethics
    • Tools of Analysis
      • Micro-narratives and Key Dialogues
      • Narrative Positioning
      • Cultural Ideals
  • 3. A Working Woman: The Negotiation of Gendered Ideals
    • Family Dynamics, Generations and Gendered Ideals
      • The Model of the Heroic Mother
      • The Working Mother as Homemaker
      • The Woman I Want (You) to Be
    • Gender and Humour in the Factory Environment
      • Dirty Work, Dirty Talk
      • Absurd Ideals: Working, Resting and Taking Care of the Home
      • A Female-Rebel or Young People Having Fun?
    • Women in Manual Labour
      • Strength and Self-control
      • Embodied Femininity: Pretty Girls in Dirty Overalls
  • 4. Social Class: Identification and Distinction
    • Narrated Worlds: Social Dynamics in the Factory Community
      • The Days of the Paternalistic Factory Owner
      • The Stereotype of the Rough and Drunken but Genuine Worker
      • Youth, Solidarity and Sense of Community
      • Social Mobility: Making and Breaking Boundaries
    • The Self Defined by Class
      • Material Scarcity and Social Ranking
      • Relegated to a Lower Class: Dominance and Humiliation
      • Skills and Dignity: “I knew the job”
      • Worker Identity and “a greasy skin”
  • 5. Change and Continuity in a Life Narrative
    • Embodied Change: Experiences of Advance and Loss
      • Modernizing Factory Work: Embodied Experience and the Worker Identity
      • An Easier Life Equals a Better Life?
      • Sites (Dis)Connecting People
      • Disappearing Landscapes – The Amputated Sites of the Factory Community
    • Travelling Selves – Narrative Strategies and Biographical Time
      • Beginnings: The Solidarity of the Family and the Community
      • The Young and Wild Elsa
      • The Shy and Worrying Elsa
      • The Funny Elsa
      • Completion: the Humorous Storyteller
  • 6. Conclusions
    • Narrating Subjectivity: Continuity and Renegotiation
    • Reflections on Narrative Means, Strategies and Agency
    • The Potential of Micro-level Analysis and a Dialogic Approach in Life Narrative Research
  • Notes
  • References
  • Appendix 1: Interviews
  • Appendix 2: Key Events and Milestones of Elsa’s Life
  • Appendix 3: Commenting Letter from Elsa
  • Appendix 4: Index of Micro-narratives
  • Appendix 5: Actors of Elsa’s Narratives
  • Abstract
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